Serbian Prime Minister Vucic has started his landmark visit to Albania, aiming to melt the decades-long chill between the two Balkan countries. Kosovo, mostly populated by Albanians, remains at the heart of the dispute.
On a first-ever visit by a Serbian head of government to Tirana, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said he wished to "extend the hand of friendship to the Albanian people."
"We think differently [over Kosovo] and will keep thinking differently, but this will not change our strategic relations for the future on economic ties," Vucic said on Wednesday, the first day of his diplomatic trip.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Belgrade in 2008, nine years after the war for secession which ended with NATO air strikes against Serbian targets. The United States, and most, but not all, members of the European Union have since recognized the Kosovo's statehood.
Both Serbia and Albania aim to join the EU, with Brussels pressuring for better regional cooperation, including traditionally fragile bilateral ties.
However, fear of ethnically-charged violence in the Balkans remains high, with tensions raised over a recent shootout between security forces and an armed Albanian group in Macedonia.
Some 1,300 police officers were deployed during Vucic's stay in Tirana, with police and army helicopters monitoring from the air, and the center of Albania's capital closed to traffic.
Footsteps of France and Germany
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said on Wednesday that peace was "brittle and a big burden on our shoulders," and that the two countries can get more EU support by working together.
"Albania and Serbia have a historic chance to return peace to this region and build co-existence in spite of religious and other differences ... to show courage like Germany and France after the World War II, after all the blood that was spilled," Rama said.
Both Vucic and Rama stressed that ties can be improved through joint projects, including an EU-funded highway linking the two countries, as well as energy, trade and tourism.
Rama's call for 'realism' on Kosovo
Belgrade and its allies maintain the position that Kosovo, with its predominantly Albanian population, is merely a Serbian province. However, Serbian and Kosovar officials are engaged in EU-brokered talks on cooperation.
During Edi Rama's visit to Belgrade last November, the Albanian prime minister called on Serbia to view Kosovo's independence with "realism," provoking an angry response from Vucic.
Serbia and other Balkan nations fear that Tirana wants to create a so-called "Greater Albania," encompassing Kosovo, parts of Macedonia, and other territories mostly inhabited by Albanians. Albania has repeatedly denied such ambitions, saying borders in the Balkans would become irrelevant after all states in the region enter EU.
dj/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP, Beta)